Friday, April 10, 2015

The Tao of Play

I was listening to NPR again. Don't role your eyes like that.  Okay, so Heather McElhatton was interviewing lawyer cum author, Allison Carmen, about her new book, The Gift of MaybeTurns out that Carmen was "addicted to certainty." She just couldn't cope with not knowing how things would turn out. It made her a really motivated, fastidious and aggressive lawyer, but it also made her an anxiety-ridden control freak. She was getting sick, having a hard time dealing with regular, day-to-day life. And then one day someone tells her this story:

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. 
     “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
     “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses.
     “Such good luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.
     “Maybe,” replied the farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Such bad luck,” they said.
     “Maybe,” answered the farmer. 
The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.
     “Such good luck!” cried the neighbors.
     “Maybe,” said the farmer.

This is an old, familiar Taoist story. So familiar, in fact, I recognized in right away as "The Farmer's Luck" from Jon J. Muth's book, Zen Shorts. Muth's book is a favorite at our house. And the included tales often rise up from my subconscious to breach in my practical life. Of course, this particular story changed Carmen's life for the better; she was ready to hear the message. And hers wasn't just a shift from thinking about the glass as half-empty to half-full, she moved into an acceptance of the general pattern that defines life. 

We are born and then death waits for us all, ultimately, and those facts, along with the twists and turns along the way, define the nature of existence. And by "nature," I do mean nature. Nature teaches us, again and again that resilience, flexibility and adaptability mean survival, and not always. Failure and death happen. Those are just the facts. But success and living are also facts of life too.

A recent hike really helped me think about the "Gift of Maybe" as it relates to our general approach with young children here at Dodge. I like to observe, support and write about what educators and youth development organizations call "experiential learning." In early childhood education, we mostly call this "play" and we believe children learn through play, and I think kids learn special things through adventure in play. To my mind, adventure means embracing a new challenge or having unexpected fun, particularly in a group. Yesterday, our group encountered lots of land-based unexpected fun. 

Spring is good for this, as it is a time of flux and concrete physical change.

So we hiked, and we came to a point where we had to cross a flooded creek and we didn't have many good options to do so. We used a half-rotted, slimy, mossy log to help us part of the way across the muck trap, but eventually all six kids (and I) had an up-close and personal encounter with mud. It was an equal opportunity moment for an education in goo. We tried our best to extricate ourselves and to get out of our sticky spot and we laughed hard while doing so. Facing adversity with joy or aplomb is not always an option, but at Dodge, we get to hone our coping skills in gentle, and sometimes messy ways. To know that you will be okay, that you can try, and also fail, is not only an adventure, it helps us build that thing we refer to as "character" in youth development. Land-based group adventures, or experiential ed opportunities, seek to connect kids with their social and emotional selves and to let them experiment with how they feel in different situations. Kids, and adults, move through life trying, and sometimes failing, to cope with the unexpected or the adverse. On some days, we also get to experience joy into the bargain and yesterday was such a day.

After our education in mud, we wandered farther and farther away from the school building. Eventually, I invited kids to try taking the "Secret Path" to Tipi Hill. I was really looking for a way to get back in time for snack without tackling the longer trail known to us as the "Big Loop." But, I was also thinking about the fact that my proposed short cut was in fact a tricky option. What I was billing as the "Secret Path" is in fact a deer trail traversing fairly steep and rough terrain, even for seasoned young Dodge hikers. We'd have to negotiate some barbed wire, an old farm dump and a burr forest. And we'd have to skirt a mucky marsh under scraggly old leaning and low hanging boxelders. I weighed my options: Big Loop (they could get really hungry, and cranky) or Secret Path (they could get really frustrated, and cranky). Kids on the hike were having a good day; we had really bonded over that mud experience. I decided that it just might be a good day to have one more adventure-- maybe so, maybe not. "Maybe" is the nature of life, right? Well, it was indeed a "maybe so" day. 

We had a lot of fun traversing the tricky terrain of the Secret Path-- so much fun that kids eventually took the lead and I followed them to Tipi Hill. Upon arrival, kids exulted, jumping around together and laughing. Then we rested, enjoyed a marshmallow, and talked over our triumph. Just that little bit of reflection, talking about our adventure, really solidified the experience: "We did it!" "That was fun!" "We can show the other kids!" "We could bring other friends to Dodge and show them the Secret Path; they don't know about it yet."

This little "case study"of a typical hike, and the real time, practical decisions we teachers and mentors make on the fly, reveals a lot about what life is like on the front lines of experiential ed. We have the luxury of inviting challenges; most of us, students and staff, don't have to cope with an excess of unwanted adversity. We seek to develop ourselves with new experiences and small, manageable challenges every day, perhaps in an effort to grow and better prepare for those bigger challenges that living affords us, or offends us, with. Dodge is no Yemen, and the adversity we visit upon ourselves here is generally mild, and often actually lovely, but maybe we can all gain just a bit more perspective from the time we spend out in not-entirely-predictable nature. Outward Bound has this to say about their approach to adventures with youth:  

"the program strives to demonstrate that through discovery of their strength of character, ability to lead, and determination to serve their community, young people will become more resilient and help to shape a more compassionate world. Most importantly, the students find the confidence to empower themselves for the future they seek."  

Outward Bound works with school-age children, primarily, but here at Dodge, we know that land-based play and discovery can and should begin, as it historically has, at birth. "On the Day You Were Born," you joined the human race, and an ecosystem. Maybe you will face more adversity, or maybe you will face less and invite more in order to grow your own skills, discover your strengths (and weaknesses) and increase your compassion for others.

To read a U of M case study of social and emotional learning at the Voyageur Outward Bound School, click here.  

This post is dedicated to Bruce Kramer and Cathy Wurzer and their courageous and moving mission to teach us about the gifts of loss. I think the two deserve a Pulitzer. You teach us even in death, Mr. Kramer.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Predators & Anti-Bias Education

No, I'm not talking about bad guys in society. I'm talking about foxes, wolves, sharks-- the "bad guys" of the natural world. When we explore the animal kingdom, we inevitably bump into a whole slew of human prejudices and cultural tropes around predators. When you teach at a nature center, the "bad guys" of the animal kingdom are hot topics, delicious in their assumed danger or worried about for their potential threat to health and well being. Take the diminutive fox, for instance:

Last week on a hike, we stopped to check out some scat. We examined it for clues about who might have produced it. Size, shape, color, texture (ew), contents and location all help point toward the owner. This scat was smallish, twisty at the ends, in a few segments about the size of your pinkie, dark in color with some hair inclusions. The little pile was right in the middle of the trail, right next to an old coyote scat. The kids and I talked through the clues and then compared it to the well-known coyote scat. Like magic, someone offered, "Maybe it's from a smaller dog.  Littler than a coyote." Bingo! A few more tries and searching through potential perps, we landed on the enigmatic fox. As we mosied on, a boy said, "Teacher, are foxes bad?" I stopped. I've heard this plenty of times before and I knew where it was coming from, but for a preschooler, it's all new all the time and I have to approach the conversation with as much care as I did the first time. 

"What do you mean "bad?"  
"Like, are they bad guys?  Wolves are bad.  Sometimes bears are bad. Are they bad like that?"  

So much to unpack in that string of sentences. "Sometimes bears are bad," is a subtle reading of bears throughout history and in literature; I'm not kidding! We have teddy bears and their picnics and we have "Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see?" and then we have slobbering, snaggle-toothed grizzlies that eat you for a midday snack. My young friend was of course considering the predators of the world and trying to order more stuff in life. "So where do foxes fit in?" he was saying.  Here's how it went down:

"Well, how are wolves bad?"
"They eat stuff?"
"Like what do they eat?"
Now other kids were listening.
"No!" said another kid, making a disgusted face, "Not people!"
"Foxes eat people," said another child, nodding his head sagely.
Yet another child laughed, "Foxes eat small things."
"Yes, foxes eat mice," I concurred.
"What do wolves eat?" said the original kid.
"Does anybody know?" I looked around.
"Mice?" offered a girl.
"Yep, and rabbits. Sometimes frogs."
"Coyotes eat people."
"No!" said the disgusted kid.
"No," I agreed. "Coyotes eat mice too."
"And rabbits."
I nodded. "Yup."
"Sometimes they eat people's dogs," offered a child. "It said on TV."
I raised my eyebrows, "Really?"
"Yep. They can eat your dog."
"Maybe a small dog," I offered. "Coyotes are about this big." I borrowed a child's stick and showed how long and tall. "Not so big."
"But foxes are a lot bigger," said the sage kid.
"Actually," I said, "I think they might be smaller. Hold your hands like this."  I made like I was holding a largish loaf of bread. "We can go look at the stuffed fox in the Nature Center later."
"He's dead."
"Yes, he is."
"He's not real."
"He's not."
"So are foxes bad?"
"Well, they have to eat and they can't go to the grocery store right?"
Kids nodded.
"I don't think they're bad guys," I said. "I just think they have do what they have to do."
"Like Neil has to push me?"

Now, I should have seen that coming. "Neil" is a peer working on impulse control and struggling with body and boundary issues. Neil was not present on this hike.  Before I could answer, here's what somebody else said:

"Neil's a bad guy."
"Why?" I asked.
"He pushes."
"Did you ever push someone?" I knew the answer.
The boy shrugged.
"Sometimes you play with Neil. I think you like to build with him."
"Is it bad when you play with him?"
Somebody else jumped in. "Bad guys kill people."
"Okay. Neil doesn't do that."
"He's not a bad guy like that."
"But he pushes me."
"All the time?" I asked.
"Is pushing bad?" I ask everyone.
They all nod.
Somebody pipes up, "But not on the swing."
"Sometimes Neil pushes and sometimes he doesn't," I say.
"Why does he?"
"I don't think he can help it sometimes. He needs help. So we say," (I raise my voice), "'Hey, give Neil some space guys. He needs some space.' Or we say, 'Stop it Neil.'" I raise my hands up,"'Cut it out.' Does Neil stop?"
The kids nod.
"Neil stops. He's learning to stop."
I turn my attention to the trail and we start hiking again.
My original friend appears at my elbow. "Teacher, sharks are bad, right?"

Bad guys popped up in my PTO meeting last week too. The principal of my daughters' school was looking for feedback about a new lock down drill the kids had gone through that day.  I hadn't been home yet, so I couldn't speak to what my kids thought about the drill itself, but I told the principal about one daughter's desire to talk through what her teachers and friends were saying about it during a prep session the week before. I asked my daughter why she thought they were doing the drill. She said, "In case a kid goes crazy."  I shared this with the principal and she said that it came as some surprise to teachers that most of the kids think this. So here's the disconnect:  the kids assume that a perpetrator of violence will be a child (a disenfranchised kid?). The adults are working on the assumption that the kids assume it will be an outside intruder. And, as I understand it, the lock down scenario was played out as if an unknown adult was roaming the hallways.  As the PTO continued to chat, I asked what kind of anti-bias or diversity education is included in the middle school years. I presumed that the mandatory health class is the delivery system.  While there is curriculum around bullying and how to stop it, it sounds like there is little anti-bias education that helps kids notice, talk through, reflect on and work to accept differences. While I think the school strives to be inclusive and community-oriented, I wonder if there is a need for children to talk about anti-bias stuff explicitly. What is the difference between teaching anti-bias and teaching kids how to stop bullying when they see it? Techniques for intervening in a bullying situation are valuable, but they are treating a symptom after the fact of bias.  Maybe anti-bias curriculum could help prevent it from starting?  Recent incidents in our own backyard at St. Cloud Tech support my belief that we should take a close look at our approach to anti-bias education.

The principal also shared information about new security systems going in district-wide. She expressed her concern about the possibility that the new system could scare away or disenfranchise some families. At least 19 languages are spoken in our district. The system will require all who enter the school to swipe a government-issued id and to be photographed. As we began to discuss the situation, another parent said that she supported the new technology and expressed the opinion that if someone wanted to avoid using such a system then they were probably one of the bad guys we want to keep out. "I'm all for it, if it keeps the strangers and the bad guys out." I think I'm worried about that assumption that people who worry about access and privacy issues are "bad guys." 

To me, the two conversations about the lock down and security seemed completely linked. In turn, those conversations seemed linked to our "bad guy" conversation at Dodge. It seems to me, that we all have to keep talking about who is "out" and who is "in." Data and research around the relationship between bullying and school violence is growing. I shared my thoughts on the meeting with my kids. I heard:

"The door doesn't matter if it's a kid."  
"Maybe if it's a criminal."  
I asked, "Who are criminals?"  
"People who do bad things."  
"Did they always do bad things? Were they born bad? Were they bad babies?"  
We all sat with that one for a while. 
Then my husband said, "Something happened to them, girls. They weren't born that way."

For anyone who thinks kids don't notice and absorb cultural assumptions and notions, think again. We have only to look to our long-standing assumptions about animal life and behavior to see fine examples of how kids absorb our bigger cultural assumptions and beliefs and even internalize them personally in the form of fear. Over the years, I have known many children who are fearful that they will be eaten by foxes, coyotes, wolves and bears here at Dodge.  Never mind the fact that the largest predators are not found in our metropolitan area, these kids are irrationally worried about being attacked by them and mostly because of their portrayal in literature I think. Foxes really get the shaft in "Little Red Riding Hood" and all those stories about hens and even Beatrix Potter.  These kids' fears are not based on encounters in reality, but based on traditions passed on to them passively, right?  Most Dodge families are also enlightened folks who would never dream of vilifying a fox, and yet, here are their kids soaking up the pervasive culture like sponges.  

Attitudes about race, class and gender run through our larger culture and kids soak them up too. Kids not only notice differences, they think about them, and, just like that scat on the trail, try to look for ways to categorize what and who they encounter in life. Young children may be predisposed to look for super-heroes and villains in life, seeking "yes" or "no" answers and arranging things into dualities.  Young children are immature; children are busy forming morality and attitudes about the world they share. It falls to adults to help children form their moral compasses and to begin to develop a sense of justice eventually. This is no easy task of course, as my transcribed preschool conversation indicates.  It is very hard for children to begin to see things in more subtle and complicated contexts; they seem to want to arrange their experiences into good and bad categories.  This time of year, teachers are busy conferencing with families, discussing their child's development across 3 general domains:  social and emotional, physical and cognitive.  We do not approach our evaluation in terms of good and bad, we look for evidence of change or growth over the period of time we have spent with the child and we try to get a picture of each child in terms of where they are in a continuum of growth.  Their physical development, for instance, is neither "good" nor "bad;" it is developing in certain ways through certain activities.  

We notice differences both subtle and great between all the children we teach. Noticing these differences helps us build a bigger picture of the learning community of our classroom, and that in turn helps us gain a larger perspective on what it generally means to be 3, 4 or 5. Having worked with young children across these ages for many years, my colleagues can tell you that we have very general expectations for how human development unfolds, but kids find an individual place on a very broad spectrum of development.  It is our mission to meet every child where they are at.  Due to differences in family structure, culture, history and parenting practices, all kids are at a very different place. To assess growth and development, we have to think of each child in context and to keep that context in mind. Children, like all of us, are individuals. Remembering that they have different learning styles and are at different stages in development helps us remember the importance of addressing bias in-general. Take a look at the four anti-bias learning goals for children set forth in NAEYC's, Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves:

"Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identitites.

Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.

Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.

Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions."

It seems to me that these goals are inseparable from the domains of development that we traditionally use to look at general child development. Social and emotional well-being-- the meat and potatoes of preschool teaching goals-- are implicit in each of these goals.  General cognition develops through noticing differences, making comparisons, responding to and thinking about the world at large. It is natural and appropriate that conversations about differences and comparisons in people should evolve in early childhood.  Children are considering who they are relative to the rest of the community, and children are finding a voice and a sense of autonomy and purpose in this world.

Just the other day, at cubby time, kids were talking about trips many of them have taken; some families have been travelling, peers notice their absence, make inquiries and conversations bubble up.  I was helping a boy with his boots:

"Teacher," he said.  "I go some place too."  
"Oh, yeah? Where do you go?"  
He smiled, his eyes twinkling, "I go to McDonald's, but I don't need a airplane to get there." Together we laughed at his sophisticated joke. "Yeah, I go to McDonald's too sometimes."
He slapped his knee, "But you don't take a airplane either!"  

Kids are surprisingly aware, and surprisingly confident in who they are. Teachable moments around anti-bias abound, out on the trail and in the classroom too.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.